Recalling a Lavish Host

Many people in Ireland will be familiar with the name of Theobald Mathew, a 19th century Roman Catholic priest who became known as the Apostle of Temperance. A member of the Capuchin order, in 1838 Fr Mathew, witnessing the problems arising from excessive consumption of alcohol, founded the Total Abstinence Society in Cork city, where he was then living. Within nine months some 150,000 persons had enrolled in this organisation and at its height during the late 1840s it is estimated that half the population of Ireland were members. What may be less well known is that Theobald Mathew was related to a wealthy, and Protestand, landed family and grew up at Thomastown Castle, County Tipperary where his father acted as agent to a cousin, the first Earl of Landaff. Now a striking ruin, Thomastown was for several centuries the seat of the Mathew family. Of Welsh origin (hence the choice of name for their title), they were connected through marriage to the Butlers, and thus acquired land in this part of the country. As was so often the case, a series of judicious marital alliances made them exceedingly rich, allowing the construction of a large residence in the late 17th/early 18th centuries. In Town and Country in Ireland under the Georges (1940) Constantia Maxwell provides an excellent account of life there in the years after the house had been built by Thomas Mathew. The building was ‘surrounded by gardens adorned with terraces, statuary, and fish ponds, and by a park of some two thousand acres stocked with deer. Mr Mathew, besides being very rich, was held to be one of the finest gentlemen of the age, and, having travelled much on the Continent and lived in London and Dublin, had a large circle of friends. Nothing gave him so much pleasure as to invite these to Thomastown, where he had no less than forty guest-rooms, besides handsome accommodation for servants. The guests in his house were invited to order anything they might wish for, as at an inn; they might seat themselves at the dining-room table without paying irksome respect to rank, or, if they preferred it, dine with chosen companions in their own rooms. A large room was fitted up as a city coffee-house with newspapers and chessboards, where servants had been ordered to bring refreshments at any time of the day. For those who liked sport fishing tackle was provided, as well as guns and ammunition, while hounds and hunters were available in the stables. But, although everything at Thomastown was on such a lavish scale, there was no disorder or waste, for Mr Mathew rose early every morning to look over the accounts, and his servants were well paid, and forbidden to take tips.’ A description of life at Thomastown was provided by Thomas Sheridan in his biography of Jonathan Swift described how the later was so delighted with Thomas Mathew’s hospitality that instead of staying for a fortnight, as originally intended, he remained there for four months. 

As mentioned, the house at Thomastown was once surrounded by splendid gardens. Writing in 1778, Thomas Campbell noted that not only was the setting perfect, with the Galtee Mountains ‘set at such a due distance that they are the finest termination for a prospect a painter could desire’ but ‘behind the house is a square parterre, with flowers, with terraces thickly studded with busts and statues; before it, a long and blind avenue, planted with treble rows of well-grown trees, extends its awkward length. In the centre of this, and on the acclivity of the hill, are little fish ponds, pond above pond. The whole park is thrown into squares and parallelograms, with numerous avenues fenced and planted.’ By the time Campbell visited, this style of garden had fallen out of fashion, so he tut-tutted that ‘if a hillock dared to interpose its little head, it was cut off as an excrescence, or at least cut through; that the roads might be everywhere as level as they are straight. Thus was this delightful spot treated by some Procrustes of the last age.’ A few years later, Joseph Cooper Walker was just as critical of Thomastown’s gardens. ‘They lie principally on the gentle declivity of an hill,’ he explained, ‘resting on terraces, and filled with “statues thick as trees”. A long fish pond, sleeping under “a green mantle” between two rectilineous banks, appears in the midst. And in one corner stands a verdant theatre (once the scene of several dramatic exhibitions) displaying all the absurdity of the architecture of gardening. Thus did our ancestors, governed by the false taste which they imbibed from the English, disfigure, with unsuitable ornaments, the simple garb of nature.’  Not much later, perhaps when the second Earl of Landaff, who inherited title and estate on his father’s death in 1806, transformed the house, these by-now old-fashioned gardens were largely swept away in favour of open parkland. 

Thomastown, as previously mentioned, was originally a late 17th/early 18th century house of two storeys, the centre just one room deep with projecting wings forming a short entrance courtyard. However, it appears that the generous Thomas Mathew enlarged the house by filling in the space between the wings to create a dining room, some 50 feet long and 20 feet deep, no doubt to feed all the guests he entertained. Several generations later, the second Earl of Landaff decided to alter the building’s appearance by giving it a Gothick makeover. In 1812 the architect Richard Morrison was commissioned to come up with a design for the place. The original entrance arcade was now glazed to create a Great Hall, while the first-floor gallery became a gothic-style library. However, the drawing room retained its classical decoration, with screens of scagliola columns at either end, a typical Morrison flourish which can still be seen in the library at Ballyfin, County Laois. Meanwhile, the exterior was ornamented with a crenellated parapet and a series of octagonal turrets topped with dart-like finials. As Mark Bence-Jones noted, from a distance these look like rabbits’ ears. A kitchen and service wing at right-angles to the house was also thoroughly dressed in Tudor-Gothic decoration, although a stone tower at the corner of the range is in Norman style. The entire building was covered in stucco, which was then rather oddly painted pale blue. An engraving of the completed work made by John PrestonNeale in 1819 although this included an unexecuted family wing and a more simple service range than that actually constructed. The second earl had no children and following his death, Thomastown passed to a sister Lady Elizabeth Mathew who in turn left the estate to a cousin of her mother, the Vicomte de Chabot. Before the end of the 19th century, it had come into the possession of the Dalys of Dunsandle, County Galway but seemingly by then the house was already falling into ruin. And so it has remained, with much of the central block, where those hospitable dinners were once given, long since collapsed. Today the only diners seen here are cattle.

6 comments on “Recalling a Lavish Host

  1. Finola says:

    Re Fr Matthew – had no idea! How fascinating. Hospitality isn’t what it used to be.

  2. Ralph says:

    Another fascinating post!

  3. erniecrossen1 says:

    Isn’t it a pity that our history did not follow a different path than it did when houses such as this might have remained and allowed for a social development as was seen in more egalitarian societies

  4. Michael Boyd says:

    Very interesting! I’m afraid the spirit of hospitality engendered by Thomas Mathew is long departed, or at least was absent on the day of my visit there some 25 years ago. The Tipperary’s annual Thomastown meet saw quite a field assembled in Thomas Burn’s Yard nearby and on the road at the pub. Visitors were there from all round and the UK and America. The noted breeder of first rate hunters, Pat Loughlin of Gowran had mounted me on Mack, a polished and supremely able giant with an honest character and an innate knack for flattering the rider such that they appeared utterly in command of the scene and far more elevated among their peers than might be their due. Mack was to most other horses what a Range Rover is to a shopping trolley.
    It was an overcast day but we weren’t worried about rain. We entered from the road and the field stood by ‘neath the ivyied turrets while hounds drew a cover nearby.
    The castle spurred the chit chat among the visitors and, offering the visitors the benefit of what little knowledge I had of its history, I a tad cheekily proposed a toast to the Temerance movement from my hip flask.
    Well if I did the heavens opened with a clap of thunder in answer to my blasphemous deprecation of Fr Mathew’s honour. Mack signalled his displeasure with a show whinnying and stomping, completely out of character. I didn’t realise it, but had invoked Fr Mathew’s wrath. Things were to get worse.

    A half hour later galloping at full tilt towards an open gate framed by granite piers Mack, with the full ten foot gap available to him drew heavily to on side and shaved the pier with its iron hook. Seeing this immovable obstacle looming I did what i could to put my right leg up behind my shoulder out of the way. Alas, not fast enough. my knee caught the hook and I changed mount from Mack to the gate post. In performing this slick bit of horsemanship my other knee obligingly kept balance in the affair by getting properly twisted too.

    Mack carried on, being more interested in the hunt than in the anthropomorphic sack of potatoes he had deposited at the gatepost.

    The Tipps too seemed unanimous in support of Fr Mathew’s disdain for the alcohol touting infidel by galloping on, leaving him faced with a 5 mile walk back to the meeting but hospitably offering to mind the horse in my absence.

    Although no visible damage was done my knees were sore for years afterwards!

    Take a drink if you will, but don’t mock those who don’t! A sore lesson.

    • Emma Richey says:

      Having hunted in Ireland myself, nearly always with rain of Biblical proportions, mud, yawning ditches and luckily wonderful horses, I thoroughly enjoyed your story. I shall remember never to mock those who do not imbibe! How wonderfully atmospheric it must have been to have a meet at Thomastown.

  5. Thomas Ryan says:

    Lovely article.

    I’m fascinated by this place for many reasons, not least of which is its status as one of the earliest purely classical houses in Ireland. The arcade you mention above may have been designed by William Robinson, a credible attribution given his known work for the Duke of Ormonde, the half-brother of Thomastown’s builder, and the sophistication of the arcade itself, which unfortunately has mostly vanished but for some remnants of rustication – it collapsed along with the central block it supported, in the 1960s. Probably the Georgian castellated facade attached to it by iron rods by Richard Morrison became too much.

    Despite the arcade’s sophistication, the internal arrangements of the 17th century house were old-fashioned, with the space formed by the arcade substituting for a hall, which then led into a great stair, which in turn ascended to a great chamber on the first floor above the arcade. This centre block was only one room deep, in contrast to the blocks on either side. Given the Irish climate and the problems of circulation around the house caused by the arcade effectively dividing the house in two on the ground floor, the filling in of the centre block of the garden front and the creation of a proper hall where the arcade had been were understandable adaptations.

    I would love to get my hands on early photos of it, particularly the interior, of which I have never seen one.

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